The Column Online



by Michael Frayn

Theatre Arlington

Director: Cheryl Denson
Technical Director and Lighting Designer: Bryan Stevenson
Stage Manager: Maria Leon Hickox*
Assistant Stage Manager: Michael Green
Scenic Designer: Kevin Brown
Sound Designer: Ryan Simón
Costume Designer: Karen Potter
Properties Designer: Robin Dotson
Scenic Artist: Wendy Searcy-Woode
Master Carpenter: Colin Wintersole
Sound Board Operator: Taylor Love
Light Board Operator: Trinity Tobin
Deck Crew: Justin Higgins
Covid Compliance Officer: Maggie Younkin
Graphic Designer: SoloShoe Communications, LLC
Photographer: Jacob Oderberg

Dotty Otley/Mrs. Clackett: Gigi Cervantes*
Lloyd Dallas: Jakie Cabe*
Garry Lejeune/Roger Tramplemain: Leroy Hood
Brooke Ashton/Vicki: Mattie Lillian Davis
Poppy Norton-Taylor: Emily Truelove
Frederick Fellowes/Philip Brent: Billy Betsill
Belinda Blair/Flavia Brent: Brandy Raper
Tim Allgood: Joshua Nerio
Selsdon Mowbray/Burglar: David Fenley

Reviewed Performance: 4/1/2023

Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Noises Off premiered on Broadway in 1983 and comes to Theatre Arlington’s fiftieth anniversary season through April 16. In three hilarious acts, the audience is treated to the same British comedy set in a traditional English Manor from different points of view. In a wickedly funny turn (pun intended), the set is flipped, and the audience gets to see how the proverbial sausage is made. And whoa, have we been missing out!

The play-within-a-play is Nothings On, a period comedy fueled by misunderstandings, misplaced bags and boxes, tax evasion, and superglue. One theme in this farce is the domino build-up to disaster. Something goes wrong, and all efforts to fix it just drag everything deeper down a rabbit hole of a mishap. Various threads of hilarity bring this concept to fruition: microphone announcements that cross wires, props that fail to travel on their necessary paths, misplaced costumes, missed cues, and escalating revenge triggered by the actors’ offstage imbroglios.

From the start, the audience is introduced to one strain of crossed wires, when two crew members with dueling pre-show announcements have an off-mike moment. When this topic is revisited in the Second Act, the audience is given a backstage pass to the disconnect between the calming announcements and the chaos that can surround it.

As the curtain opens, a landline phone rings. The delightful Gigi Cervantes, as the befuddled actress Dotty Otley playing the equally befuddled family servant Mrs. Clackett, runs to answer it. We learn that the owners are (supposedly) in Spain and that a snooty-sounding house agent manages rentals. Mrs. Clackett is not supposed to be there, but she explains, “it’s the royal you know” with the hats. Cervantes does a phenomenal job with this deliberately ditzy servant-as-everyman dialogue.

Mrs. Clackett is not the only person who is not supposed to be there. We never see a single Nothing’s On character who is supposed to be in that living room. The owners, Philip, and Flavia Brent are supposed to be in Spain. Roger the house agent has no right to take his trysts there. A burglar clearly breaks and enters, and the sheik and his wife are imposters. As a truly meta delight, the characters who are not supposed to be there are inevitably sporadically replaced with the crew who are not supposed to be on stage either.

The First Act is either a dress rehearsal or tech rehearsal, depending on whom you believe, and we are delighted when director Lloyd Dallas (Jakie Cabe) bellows from the aisle to correct Dotty’s mishandling of props. In a harbinger of things to come, Dotty has trouble with the prop transfers: when should she take the sardines and when should she take the newspaper? Like Chekhov’s gun, if a plate of sardines is mishandled in Act One, we can expect a fishy Act Three.

Cabe shines as Lloyd, the cranky director who knows “what God felt like.” When he has to suffer through a pompous actor’s nonsensical grandstanding, Lloyd drolly says, “Thank you. I’m very touched. Now, will you get off the (bleeping) stage?”

This is one of the best sets you will ever see in a theater because the audience sees it inside out. The Sixteenth Century home is presumably nestled in the bucolic English countryside. A sofa with brass buttons sits center stage, and a staircase leads to a gallery. In addition to the Tudor woodwork, the set sports plenty of doors, upstairs and down. The audience learns where they all lead to the study bearing ominous tax notices, a kitchen teaming with an inexhaustible supply of sardines, the bathrooms (or W.C.’s), a linen closet bizarrely sporting black sheets, a bedroom, and the attic.

In the Second Act, we get to see it all from the opposite point of view. Kudos to the deck crew who transformed the stage. The audience is transported backstage, where the noises are supposedly off. It is a complex tableau, with taped paper signs labeling the doors, fake foliage for the windows, props, and costumes ostensibly at the ready, and ill-conceived “safety” features, such as an ax (cue another Chekov reference).

Lloyd appears backstage, seemingly delighted that he has moved on to his next directing project: Richard III. Alas, the actor playing this titular role has a back problem (playwright Michael Frayn isn’t holding back). This opens a slight window into Lloyd’s schedule, and he demands that poor over-worked Tim (a very funny Joshua Nerio) buy “expensive looking flowers” for Brooke (the statuesque beauty Mattie Lillian Davis) and hide them from Poppy (a lovely, young, and fresh-faced Emily Truelove). No, we don’t expect that to work out well, but it is funny, nonetheless.

One way that this play diverges from the similarly themed The Play That Goes Wrong is the portrayal of the crew. Poor Tim is not messing around with lost tape decks. He is overworked and sleep deprived, responsible for doing too many things at once. The assistant stage manager Poppy is put upon in more ways than one. She silently scurries around backstage, shutting doors and trying to rectify the ongoing mayhem. Both Nerio and Truelove skillfully and convincingly play obedient characters struggling with the unreasonableness of their circumstances.

The fuel for this play-within-a-play is not the incompetence of the actors as actors per se, but it is not simply bad luck either. The human frailty of otherwise industrious talent merges in unfortunate ways. Oh, and then there’s the sex and alcohol.

These actors are always saying, my love, my darling, and my precious to one another. Maybe they mean it when they say it. By the Second Act, however, the ax is out. Synchronicity is everything, and behind the scenes we see it all go off the rails. One ongoing source of hilarity in the Second and Third Acts is that the audience knows how the play is supposed to proceed and can see how easy it is for things to fall out of place.

In the superlative, action-packed Second Act, the audience is treated to an extended ax bit, silent screaming matches, pranks, and more booze-guzzling than I could count. And then there’s the cactus. For the record, this publication does not condone the use of succulents. But it is hilarious.

Leroy Hood is consistently funny as pompous leading man Garry. One source of comedy is the various coping mechanisms the cast employs when things go wrong. True to his arrogant character, Garry breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience what is supposed to be happening in Nothing’s On.

Belinda (a very convincing Brandy Raper) is the all-soothing, people-pleasing beauty who is just going to say any calming, comforting platitude to nudge everyone back on track. This includes sharing confidences, and it’s this character’s penchant for gossip that causes trouble.

The entire cast is drawn into superlative slapstick, in which Billy Betsill particularly shines. His Freddy is well-cast for his classic good looks. But the cast all have their Achilles’ heels. Freddy cannot stand violence and goes into intermittent paroxysms of hand-waiving incompetence.

The most obvious human foible in Nothing’s On is Selsdon (David Fenley). “Where’s Selsdon?” is a chorus because his sobriety requires a constant babysitter. Fenley’s drunken careening convinces.

The costumes are fun period pieces. Brooke/Vicki’s red and black corset and garters are a perfect fit, and her ability to pull a variety of grooming items out of her bosom certainly impresses her. The young and innocent Poppy is appropriately attired in a pink floral dress with pink trim and a jaunty pink hair scarf. Dotty/Mrs. Clackett wears a snag-prone sweater over a very British apron and floral frock.

The sound design is clever, because the audience experiences sound from two sources, from the stage, and from the faux-backstage. The lighting design is also sophisticated as it amply displays the backstage in Act Two, with bright stage lights visible beyond.

Everyone in the packed audience was laughing throughout this excellent production. For all that the play-within-a-play is plagued with missed cues and stage debacles, the production is impeccably timed and every cast member shines. I highly recommend this comedy for the split-second timing, first-rate cast, and all-around fun time.

Theatre Arlington
March 31 – April 16, 2023, Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2 pm.
Arlington’s Cultural Arts District
305 West Main Street, Arlington, Texas
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